When Police Kill Police and Someone Else is Blamed
Jenna Holm. Photo: John Roark, Post Register
May 18, 2020
In the early morning of May, 2020, Bonneville County Sheriff’s Deputy Wyatt Maser lost his life while responding to a call in Idaho Falls. He and another officer arrived to assist a motorist, Jenna Holm, after she was in a single-car crash on a rural stretch of road. They arrived to find Holm in distress. While attempting to bring her into custody, another officer driving at high speeds arrived and hit Deputy Maser with his patrol vehicle. Maser died at the scene. Holm was charged with manslaughter in connection with his death.
Deputy Wyatt Maser
Tracking Police-on-Police Violence
Jenna Holm is not the only person to face charges as a result of one officer killing another. Here are other stories of police-on-police violence in the United States.
Officer Jonathan Shoop was shot by fellow officer Mustafa Kumcur, who was located in the same car as Shoop during a traffic stop in Bothell, Washington in July, 2020. Henry Eugene Washington is alleged to have initiated a shootout after being pulled over for a traffic infraction. Washington was charged with aggravated first degree murder for the death of Jonathan Shoop. Over a dozen uniformed Bothell police officers attended Washington’s arraignment.
This was a chaotic chain of events that occurred over the span of close to only two seconds. Based on the investigation updates, it appears there was a tragic crossfire situation that resulted in the death of one of our officers. Let us be clear, we believe the actions of the suspect led to this tragic event.
– Jennifer Phillips, Bothell City Manager
Washington has pled ‘not guilty’ and is currently awaiting trial.
In more than half of these cases in which police were killed by police, a suspect was either charged and/or convicted (Maser, Colson, Simonsen, Shoop) or blamed (Mulkeen).
In so many of these cases, the defining features are chaos at the scene and poor communication between the police officers: disadvantageous arrangement of law enforcement in a scene without clarity on everyone’s role, poor communication regarding the location of law enforcement officers, lack of communication regarding who is law enforcement officers and who is in charge, and so on. Most of these police deaths could have been prevented by the police themselves through improved communication and tactics and appropriate use of force.
Police-on-police violent encounters are commonplace across sheriff’s and police departments in the U.S., but, there are no known efforts to track them locally or nationally. In 2010, David Paterson, the then-Governor of New York, convened a task force to examine police-on-police accidental shootings. The task force’s final report describes over 300 incidents of non-fatal police-on-police violent incidents across the United States, observing that while officer-on-officer violent incidents are common, how officers and agencies handle these incidents are a patchwork of policies.
Because the United States—uniquely in the world—has literally thousands of separate police departments with no government agency able to set standards for them all, the variety of policies and protocols is virtually endless, with enormous variation in how thoroughly departments train for such encounters, if they train at all.
– New York Task Force on Police-On-Police Shootings
The Task Force found that most shootings were accidental slaying of non-uniformed officers that were mistaken for individuals committing crimes. The task force findings indicate that Black officers were more likely to be shot and killed under these circumstances, as was the case for Jacai Colson, William Wilkins, and Omar Edwards.
Two years after Omar Edward’s death, New York City Police instituted more training for interactions between on-duty and off-duty officers. The effectiveness of these trainings in preventing police-on-police violence is not known.
Wyatt Maser and the Case of Jenna Holm
When Jenna Holm was involved in a one-car crash at approximately 5 a.m., May 18, 2020 on a rural road near Idaho Falls, Idaho, a passing motorist saw her car on its side, pulled over and called 911. When the Sheriff’s deputies arrived, Holm was in the middle of the road, holding a machete to her chin. Bonneville Sheriff’s Deputy Benjamin Bottcher arrived first, and was soon followed by Deputy Wyatt Maser. They spoke with Holm, saying they were there to help and asking her to put down the machete. Bottcher had interacted with Holm several days prior at the Idaho Falls Crisis Center(https://www.eastidahocrisis.com/). Holm was screaming, clearly in distress and possibly experiencing a mental health crisis. After she several requests, she did put down the machete. Twenty minutes after their arrival, the Deputy Bottcher tased her. When this did initially not subdue her, Bottcher continued to tase her for several more seconds.
Eventually, Holm dropped to the ground due to the ongoing tasing. Deputy Maser stepped into the roadway to bring Holm into custody. Without warning, lights from Sergeant Randy Flegel’s patrol car illuminated the roadway and he hit Maser with his car. Deputy Maser died at the scene. According to the evidence presented in court, Flegel was driving over 90 miles per hour into bright lights as he approached the scene, and he slowed to 53 miles per hour when he struck Maser. Holm was taken into custody, and a few days later, the Bonneville County prosecutor charged her with manslaughter for the death of Wyatt Maser.
Legal Ins and Outs
Jenna Holm is charged with ‘involuntary manslaughter’, which under Idaho law is “the unlawful killing of a human being…in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate any unlawful act.”
At her probable cause hearing, the prosecutor stated: “by continuing to be a danger to others and not complying with law enforcement orders, she produced the death of Deputy Wyatt Maser.” Her defense attorney indicated the intent was not to threaten or endangers others or disobey orders. She was in emotional distress at the time, and she did not feel safe since she was on a dark, rural road with limited cell phone service. In addition, it was dark and very noisy from high winds, making it difficult for everyone present to ascertain what was going on.
The Bonneville County prosecutor chose not to charge Sergeant Randy Flegel, the person driving the vehicle that hit and killed Deputy Maser. It is common for law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys to work closely together, raising questions about the suitability of a prosecutor’s office deciding whether or not to charge an officer within their jurisdiction. Indeed, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office referred to the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office as “our partner” in a Facebook post from April 15, 2021.
The defense has stated that Sergeant Flegel acted negligently by approaching a police encounter taking place in a road at such high speeds, especially since it was dark. Most recently, the defense filed a motion to dismiss Holm’s manslaughter charge, arguing that she was not committing an unlawful act when Maser was killed. Holm was on the ground and incapacitated when Flegel struck Maser.
Recently, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office completed an internal investigation into the incident. In that report, they identify several factors that may have led to Wyatt Maser’s death: no emergency red and blue emergency lights were activated by law enforcement (only scene lights were used), Deputy Bottcher provided incorrect directions and locations when he relayed the situation to the dispatch, and a witness present had bright vehicular lights pointing into oncoming traffic. The report recommends additional training for new recruits focused on roadside safety and supervisory oversight on compliance.
The prosecution originally only provided a summary of those findings to Holm’s defense team. They did not release the full internal investigation despite obligations to follow the Brady Rule, which holds that prosecutors must turn over potentially “exculpatory evidence” (that supports the defendant and/or absolves them of the crime) to the defense. In a court hearing, the trial judge ruled that the prosecutor must turn over the entire report from the internal investigation to the defense team.
Jenna Holm is facing a maximum of 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines for manslaughter, and a maximum of 5 years in prison and $5,000 in fines for aggravated assault.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I started writing this article because I was shocked and saddened at what is happening to Jenna Holm. That interaction between her and the Bonneville County Sheriff’s office could easily have ended without the senseless tragedy if not for the mistakes of the Sheriff’s deputies. As I researched this piece, it was surprising to discover a pattern of pinning blame on civilians for the mistakes of law enforcement. Roughly at some point after 2009, a blueprint emerged wherein the civilian(s) originally caught up in the police encounter were blamed for police harm regardless of the circumstances or if the original police encounter was ever justified. In New York City, Miguel Goitia was not held criminally liable for the death of Omar Edwards in 2009. But after that, the New York City prosecutorial policies shifted. Antonio Williams was blamed for the death of Brian Mulkeen, although both died in the same incident that the NYPD initiated despite no criminal wrongdoing by Wiliams. Christopher Ransom and Jagger Freeman are being charged with murder for the death of Brian Simonsen. A similar pattern is repeated in the cases of Jacai Colson, Jonathon Shoop and Wyatt Maser. Police officers have been held accountable for the death of another officer when there is not another person involved in the encounter, like in the cases of Scott Hutton and Caleb Rule, but this is uncommon.
While these incidents are rare, the pattern is chilling. Could anyone of us end up caught up a police murder charge due to negligence and carelessness by other police officers? Holm’s manslaughter charge started as a one-car traffic accident. She likely needed a tow truck and a mental health professional. Instead, was tased and is now facing charges for actions that occurred while she was incapacitated. This case also raises questions about the overall integrity of the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s deputies erred in their actions that day resulting in a tragic outcome, yet the Sheriff’s Office has not publicly acknowledged this to the community it serves.
These cases not only upend the lives of civilians, they fail to bring true justice and accountability for the surviving friends and family of slain officers. The families of William Wilkins, Jacai Colson and Geoffrey Breitkopf were clearly not satisfied with the response from law enforcement and/or the criminal justice system and hence sought redress in civil courts. Notably, the case of Geoffrey Breikopf is different. The civilian Anthony DiGeronimo was not blamed for Geoffrey Breitkopf’s death, but, the Nassau prosecutor also did not charge retired officer John Cafarella, despite the evidence that his actions created chaos and led directly to Breitkopf’s death.
It is important that law enforcement publicly take responsibility for their mistakes, particularly when those mistakes lead to tragedies, so that existing harm can be addressed and in the future, prevented. Clearly, errors were made by the Bonneville County Sheriff’s officers during the events of May 18, 2020. While the recommendations from the internal investigation - training on roadside safety for new recruits - are a good step, the continued attempt to prosecute Jenna Holm undermines those reforms; the message is that roadside safety protocols sort of matter, unless there is a ‘perp’ to blame. Additionally, this recommended training may not prevent another incident that resulted in Maser’s death if it is not required for current officers.
As written in the Idaho State Constitution, county sheriff’s offices have a deep responsibility to the communities they serve. Their ability to fulfill this relies on public trust, and respect and transparency are two core ingredients to maintain that trust. I hope that the Bonneville County prosecutor will take this seriously and reconsider what is to be gained by prosecuting Jenna Holm for Wyatt Maser’s death.
Update: Sept 24, 2021
District Judge Dane H. Watkins Jr. dismissed the manslaughter charge Holm was facing following a motion to dismiss filed by her attorneys. The dismissal rested on the lack of evidence or allegation of a conspiracy or plan between Holm and Flegel to commit a crime that resulted in Maser’s death.
The standard the State seeks to impose would permit convictions of involuntary manslaughter in any number of situations where law enforcement responds to any unlawful act, presumably including minor infractions…Such is not the law in Idaho.
Holm is still facing an aggravated assault charge. Her trial is scheduled to begin in February of 2022.